The Cost of Long-Term Youth Ministry

Gone are the days when a preacher could show up in a town, throw out a couple of truth bombs, and a week later walk out of the town, completely changing the spiritual trajectory of a family. In fact, so far gone are these days that it’s almost cringy to think this could actually work. Well, sadly enough, also gone are the days where an overnight lock-in, a weekend retreat, or a super hip Wednesday night youth group (complete with free pizza) can lead to permanent life transformation for a student. Too harsh? Maybe.

But the harsh truth is that the church is in decline here in the USA. Clearly, something we are doing is no longer working. 

I have seen it time and time again. A student shows up to a new church, attracted by the cool programming. She hangs out for a couple of months, maybe even a year. She goes to a camp, has a spiritual breakthrough, and then six months later, little Janette is nowhere to be seen, having forsaken her newly transformed life. Have we gotten it wrong?

Now, I must insert two little caveats. 1) These are my own observations of ministries I have been in charge of and run, so the finger I point, points at me. 2) These observations are generalizations. We serve a God who is bigger than any discipleship pathway we create. God reveals and impacts students’ lives in so many different ways. But if you are struggling to attract and retain students in whose lives you are involved, maybe you should keep reading. I claim no miracle fix but simply offer observations from what has worked and (more often than not) what has not.

So where were we? Oh yeah: lock-ins don’t work. So if you have a lead pastor who requires you to stay up ALL NIGHT, tell him/her that I personally said such plans might not work. I give you permission to cancel that event. 

All kidding aside, youth workers tend to be very gifted at figuring out ways to attract students into the church. This event-heavy youth ministry model is great at getting new students in the doors. But then what? What’s the next step? That is where I have often found myself perplexed and wishing I had more to offer.

So what is the answer? I’ll tell you, but be warned: It’s going to cost you, A LOT.

The answer is GRACE!

Does this seem a little too textbook like? Well then maybe my friend (I wish) Dietrich Bonhoeffer can explain best the type of grace required of us. In his book “The Cost of Discipleship,” he presents two types of grace. He says “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

This flash-in-the-pan mentality allows us to keep living our lives without really having to sacrifice for the sake of those who are new to the faith. This is not the grace required of us.

The second grace Bonhoeffer describes is this, “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”

Grace is costly. And if you are really serious about wanting students to stick, it will cost you. 

The Bible is filled with this language. “To gain your life you must lose it,” “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him.” As we have received this grace, we now are agents to be used in God’s story of grace for all of creation. Grace done right looks a lot like what we call discipleship.

What does this mean for youth ministry? It means that if you are serious about allowing God to use you to help transform lives, it is going to take a lot of work. It will go much slower than what you would like, and the fruit will be much smaller than you hope for. So instead of practical steps, I offer some thoughts as you roll up your sleeves and get involved:

  1. Think in terms of partnership rather than numbers. You are walking in partnership with a student (and often their family). I feel that if done correctly, you only have capacity to do this well with a few students. Jesus seriously discipled 12. You aren’t Jesus, so it will probably be less than this.
  2. We all have dreams of converting the masses, but could your calling be so grand as to participate in the transformation of the life of just one person?
  3. Think long term instead of instantaneous. Long term sees any relational bump in the road as simply that—a bump in the road instead of an insurmountable wall. People stay as people this way instead of morphing into agendas.
  4. All this extra input must come from somewhere, so quit the programs that are taking up those necessary resources (again with the all-nighter!).
  5. Sin is often systemic and generational, so to truly help someone break this cycle, it will take a lot of time, effort, and yep, you guessed it, grace.
  6. Choosing to stay involved in the life of students means really digging deep roots in your current community. Craig Groeschel says it well when he states in an episode of the 5 Leadership Questions podcast that “You will vastly overestimate what you can do in the short run, but you will vastly underestimate what God can do through you over a lifetime of faithfulness.”

Obviously, there are so many different ways to do youth ministry. But Jesus left the 99 to chase after the one lost sheep. We should embrace the messy and time-consuming life of costly grace and reimagine how long-term youth ministry could have lasting impacts in our community.

David Bond
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